Kathy Marks: Australia must confront attitude to women leaders

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Gillard said on Wednesday she was "absolutely confident ... it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that". Photo / Getty Images
Gillard said on Wednesday she was "absolutely confident ... it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that". Photo / Getty Images

One of the abiding images of Julia Gillard's reign will be that of Tony Abbott at an anti-carbon tax rally outside Parliament House, standing next to protesters brandishing a banner stating "Ditch the witch".

The part played by gender in Gillard's brutal ousting is likely to be debated here for some time to come, along with her legacy as Australia's first female leader and the question of whether her prime ministership has made it easier, or harder, for other women to follow her.

Gillard herself probably nailed the truth when she said, after Kevin Rudd defeated her in Wednesday's leadership ballot, that reaction to a female leader "doesn't explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing. It explains some things."

While there were multiple reasons for the unpopularity that saw her dumped by her own party, not least her difficulty in engaging with voters in a warm and natural way, there is no doubt that the ascent of a woman to the highest political office brought out the worst in many Australians.

The carbon tax banner - which Abbott claimed not to have noticed at the time - was typical of the kind of language used about her, while the infamous Liberal Party fundraiser menu, with its description of her in crude sexual terms, merely hinted at the deeply misogynistic "jokes" and cartoons that had been circulating since she became prime minister.

Her colleague and close friend, Nicola Roxon, warned of the "corrosive sexism" in Australian society in her valedictory speech to Parliament last week. Gillard had been "subjected to some of the most crass, silly, petty, sexist and just plain rude behaviour for years", according to Roxon.

Gillard said on Wednesday she was "absolutely confident ... it will be easier for the next woman, and the woman after that, and the woman after that". A fortnight ago, though, following her interrogation by shock jock Howard Sattler about the sexuality of her partner, Tim Mathieson, she expressed fear that it might "send a message to women and girls not to be involved in public life". Australia's sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, voiced similar concerns.

While Gillard may have broken the mould, Australia will probably not overcome its "rampant misogyny" - as Norm Abjorensen, a political scientist at the Australian National University, calls it - until it has had a more accomplished female politician. In New Zealand, Jenny Shipley paved the way for her more successful successor, Helen Clark.

While Australians are unlikely to see another woman prime minister so quickly, there are plenty of talented women in federal Parliament, including Penny Wong, the new Senate leader, Tanya Plibersek, the Health Minister, and Julie Bishop, the Deputy Opposition leader.

Regrettably, Roxon, who was the country's first female Attorney General, is retiring at the election, for family reasons. She is highly regarded, not least for the way she stared down legal threats from the big tobacco companies to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes.

Gillard will be remembered for her coruscating "misogyny speech", in which she lambasted Abbott for a litany of sexist actions and remarks.

But while the speech was applauded by women around the world, it alienated blue-collar voters - particularly men - in marginal Australian electorates.

Abjorensen says: "It's clear that a large segment of the Australian population still can't accept the idea of a woman as prime minister.

"She [Gillard] has put up with a degree of political vilification that we've never before seen in a leader in Australia ... It's been a real eye-opener for me. We're not the liberal, progressive society that we've been telling ourselves we are."

Jane Caro, an author and columnist, told the Australian yesterday: "Our discomfort with a woman leader made a very difficult situation even worse. Women everywhere are thinking, 'Go into politics? No thanks'."

Some voters found it difficult to accept not only a woman at the top, but one who was unmarried, with no children, and an atheist.

There was a certain irony yesterday when Rudd paid tribute in Parliament to Gillard's "great work as a standard bearer for women in our country". Labor, which has an affirmative action policy, is reportedly planning to pre-select a female for her seat of Lalor, in Melbourne's western suburbs.

- NZ Herald

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